By Frederic Morton, from a speech given at the Vienna Haus der Barmherzigkeit two days before he died, in April. Morton was a critic, an essayist, and the author of several novels. His essay “The Seductive Catastrophe” was published in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Translated from the German by Nicholas Nardini.
My first exile was leaving my geographic homeland. I grew up in Hernals right near the border of Ottakring, on Thelemanngasse. I wrote a novel about this tiny alley called The Forever Street — in German, Ewigkeitsgasse. It wasn’t easy. When I tapped “Shut up, you idiot!” on my typewriter, it didn’t have nearly the force or the spice of “Halt die Goschen, Depperter!”
And yet somehow I brought it into existence, probably the only novel ever written that takes place exclusively in the Viennese suburbs but is written in English sentences. The word “but” is ambiguous here. It expresses the homesickness of a man uprooted from his fatherland, from his mother tongue, and from his native dialect — and it hides in this pain the particular benefits I gained, as an aspiring American writer, from my uprooting. Banished into exile, working in a foreign language, how did I still succeed in earning a living? What mattered was not only talent but also a paradox of my profession. Sartre said in his autobiography: “The writer speaks in his native tongue, but writes in a foreign language.” The moment a scribbler sits at his desk, the language he must use becomes entirely different from his everyday language. It is a difficult challenge.
An example: in so-called real life, if a writer gets hungry, he goes into the grocery store and says, “Good day. A sausage roll with ten decagrams of Krakauer, please.” He speaks his wish completely naturally. It is otherwise with the writer’s fictional characters. If a character’s stomach growls and he communicates his desire for a sausage to the shop clerk, then the wording and tone of this wish must express his personality and mood, and at the same time serve the plot development and also the ambience, the milieu, and the rhythm of the narrative. His request for sausage must be spoken in a poetically composed artificial language, which must nevertheless not appear contrived.
As a fifteen-year-old I was thrown from Thelemanngasse onto Broadway, but I was still, in America, addicted to sausage rolls. So I went to the supermarket and said, “Good day. A sausage roll, please, with ten decagrams of Krakauer.” And I learned very soon that in New York one does not have time to say “good day,” and that in America neither “Krakauer” nor decagrams are known.
So much for my first exile. The second came later. It was the banishment from youth into age. For youth is our biological and physiological homeland. There, we know our way. And even if in our nostalgic memories the sun shines where it was actually dark, still we are familiar with the pitfalls and perils of youth. We know how to live in that homeland with good and bad — how to master it, anyway, better than we know how to navigate the foreign country of age into which we are expelled.
At first we try to ignore the expulsion altogether. In my case that didn’t seem so hard, since my second exile was neither as sudden nor as dramatic as the first. My second emigration crept in, so to speak, on tiptoe. I was too busy to perceive it. And then I had to learn all at once that I was irrevocably, indisputably, undeniably, and obviously no longer nineteen but ninety.
Suddenly, I’ve fallen hard and deep into the land of the old. It is harder to navigate than the America of my first exile. As a purely physical matter, it is totally different from the land of the young. The distance between two points is greater. When I go from my Upper West Side apartment to a supermarket to buy the New York equivalent of a sausage roll, the way is much longer and more troublesome than it was. The streets are permanently slippery; you slide easily and so must, as a precaution, use a cane. The stairs are much steeper. Even on a leisurely stroll you can lose your breath, because the air in this country is very thin — thinner than on the Grossglockner summit.
The people I meet in this foreign country are mostly outrageously young, really annoyingly young. They are rarely as kind as youth in my time were. They are impatient, rage-driven, egoistic, and appear to be happier with their electronic devices than with other people.
Yet there is a certain parallel between my first and my second exiles. Both have, in the midst of their darknesses, certain points of light. The impetuous young inhabitants of the second exile are in fact often patient and considerate when confronted with the awkwardness of us old ones. They make sure that we, even at ninety, can enjoy such pleasures as a sausage roll with ten decagrams of Krakauer.